At this point in the spring you’ll either have sat through a commencement speech or listened to someone complain about how long and boring they are. With all the institutions of higher learning around the Boston area, the annual rite of passage that is graduation is a city-wide affair (and so is the traffic it causes). And while most commencement addresses are tailored to those particular graduates, with life lessons and sunscreen advertisements sprinkled in here and there for a more worldly effect, George Howard’s speech earlier this month for Berklee College of Music is a jolt of energy and inspiration to pretty much everyone involved with the arts in Boston.
At a time when the arts seemingly have taken a back-seat to other aspects of city life, especially here in Boston, Howard’s message rings true. The associate professor of music business/management — whose impressive resume also lists him as former President of Rykodisc, a co-founder of TuneCore, and manager of Carly Simon — spoke of art breaking down walls, combatting xenophobia and intolerance, and leveling the playing field and starting discussions.
“Art has the power to break down arbitrary distinctions — race, religion, class, gender — in a way that nothing else does,” Howard says in the video, recorded May 7 at Agganis Arena. “Art allows for a deeper understanding of humanity. In this manner, art is an empathy machine.”
In his 12-minute speech, Howard cited several examples of art paving the way for change, from a white kid listening to Public Enemy in middle America (he calls Chuck D “one of our greatest prophets”) to the New York Times covering the work of Anohni, the singer/songwriter once known as Antony Hegarty. He shouts out Kim Gordon, Sleater-Kinney, Miles Davis, Scott Joplin, and of course, wearing purple, the late, great Prince.